I was so excited when I turned 13; I was to get my promise ring. This gift from my parents was more than a piece of jewelry. It was even more than a rite of passage: it entitled me to discuss sex. Always through the lens of how important it is to wait until marriage, of course, but I got to talk about sex!
In my fundamentalist homeschool environment in a small town in North Carolina, I learned the usual school subjects. I also learned that evolution was a lie and Noah’s flood explained the fossil record. I learned that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time and that there was evidence of humans hunting these great lizards (looking back and knowing that these hoaxes were debunked before I was born fills me with a mixture of sadness, anger and disgust).
But the topic that was emphasized the most to my sisters and me was the Christian narrative on sex (my brother did not receive this same focus… sex and purity were, apparently, a girl’s burden). At 12 or 13 I was made to read “Preparing for Adolescence” from Dr. James Dobson. Reading this book is how I learned that the “tickling thing” I had been doing in the bathtub since I was four or five might be called masturbation (we home-school types are quick learners). Absorb the horror for a moment: Dr. James Dobson taught me what masturbation was.
In the mid-1990s, the True Love Waits campaign was growing, and the materials it produced–coupled with the Bible–comprised my sex ed classes. In addition, my mother volunteered at one of those religious pregnancy centers that tries to guilt women into not getting abortions. I remember sneaking peeks at some of her pamphlets…graphic color photographs of bloody fetuses in garbage bags and little legs and arms dissected and discarded. She told me stories about “trashy” women who wore short skirts without underwear and “lived in sin” with their sleazy boyfriends.
She told me that condoms did not really work, and I soon came to associate all forms of birth control with promiscuous sinners. I wouldn’t be like “those women” because I’d be pure. The ring, she told me, would symbolize a contract between me, my father, Jesus and my future husband. My virginity was a possession but it was not mine.
Not purchased directly from the True Love Waits campaign, but with the same purpose, the ring my parents gave me was a yellow gold series of “Xs” and “Os” to symbolize God’s love and the love of my future husband. It might seem trivial compared to the serious nature of this topic, but I really hated yellow gold, and my mother knew that. She loved it, but I preferred white gold or silver. I suspect that this was another way for her to exercise control over my body. She was spiteful like that. Years later, when I quit wearing it, she would say hurtful things to my sisters when I was within earshot. “She isn’t wearing it because she wants men to think she sleeps around.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.
I was a devout Christian girl who begged Jesus not to start the Rapture until after I was married. I wanted to experience love and I definitely wanted to experience sex. I had been told that there was no marriage (and by extension there could be no sex) in Heaven, so I wanted to have that life on Earth before it all ended. I knew we were supposed to want to be in Heaven, but deep down, the descriptions sounded so boring to me. Eternal worship? I mean, I liked praise and worship music but there are only so many Holy-Holy-Holies a girl can take! This was a lot of pressure on a teenager, to wait, but wait I did…sort of.
I married at the first opportunity, at the age of 19 to a man six years older than me. You can guess the rest of the story. He turned out to be violent and very controlling. “God put me in control of the household, and that includes your bank account.” He said this when he was unemployed–he had threatened me and chased me into the bathroom where I locked myself until he calmed down. I had hints of this behavior from him during our very brief courtship, but I had to marry him, right? Because I was in love and he loved me and I wanted to have sex. It was the godly thing to do.
I kicked him out of my house after he threw a hammer at my head (he missed). I had joined the military and taken him with me, and almost instantly regretted bringing him. It was not just the violence, it was also that I was changing. I felt like my eyes were opening and I realized that I was done with this garbage world-view. Away from the tiny bubble of my upbringing, I saw the world much differently.
Divorce was just about the worst thing that I could do in my family’s eyes, but I did not care anymore. They said things like: “But it’s ok if he was abusive or cheated on you because then it’s biblical. Is that what happened?” I was vague with them and wouldn’t answer their questions. I was hundreds of miles away and more independent than ever. It took me years to tell anyone about the abuse, and I’m still not sure if my family realized what happened. I wasn’t coming to work with black eyes, but I was embarrassed. I was the only woman in my military unit. I did not want to draw any more attention to myself or be seen as weak.
Like many people in in similar circumstances, I struggled with emotional and relationship issues in the years that followed, but this was the first step in coming to terms with reality. I began embracing my autonomy. No part of me was anyone else’s property or promise, and that included my vagina.
It would be many years more before I realized I was an atheist. To this day I wonder what would have happened if I stayed in that life. I don’t know who I would be, but I do know I probably would still be shackled and weighed down by a promise, a ring, and a lie.
[Image Source: Flickr]
Be sure to “Like” Removing the Fig Leaf on Facebook so that you can follow the blog: